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Rare Earth Elements, Metals, Minerals, Applications, Significance

Rare Earth Elements (REE)

According to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, rare earth minerals are a group of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanides, as well as scandium and yttrium. This article provides a brief overview of India’s vast reserves of rare earth minerals, as well as the strategic importance of rare earth minerals in areas ranging from defence to energy that is helpful for the UPSC exam.

Rare Earth Elements are not always as “rare” as the name suggests. These metals are extremely difficult to mine since they are rarely found in concentrations high enough to be economically extracted. Thulium and lutetium are the two rare earth elements with the lowest abundance. Cerium, yttrium, lanthanum, and neodymium are the most plentiful rare earth elements.

Read about: Manganese Ore

What are Rare Earth Metals?

Rare Earth Metals consist of seventeen different metallic elements. These comprise the fifteen lanthanides listed on the periodic table, as well as scandium and yttrium, which resemble the lanthanides in terms of their physical and chemical characteristics.

The seventeen rare earth elements are cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium  (Y).

Read More: Cobalt Ore

Rare Earth Metals Properties

  • These minerals are employed in a wide range of contemporary technologies, including consumer electronics, computers and networks, communications, health care, national defence, and clean energy technologies, because of their distinctive magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties.
  • Even futuristic technologies require these REEs.
  • High-temperature superconductivity, for example, or safe hydrogen storage and transport for a post-hydrocarbon economy, are examples. They were given the name “rare earth” because it was previously difficult to extract them technologically from their oxide forms.
  • Numerous minerals contain them, although in insufficient quantities for commercial refinement.

Read More: Iron Ore

Rare Earth Minerals Reserves

Major rare earth minerals found in India are Ilmenite, sillimanite, garnet, zircon, monazite, and rutile. These minerals are collectively known as Beach sand minerals (BSM). The fifth-largest reserves of rare earth minerals are found in India. Due to the radioactivity of monazite sands, Indian Rare Earths Ltd is the sole producer of rare earth compounds under the Department of Atomic Energy. Globally, China has a monopoly on rare earth, following the United States’ withdrawal from this industry due to high environmental and health concerns. China once nearly paralysed the Japanese economy by suspending the export of rare earth elements.  India also has critical rare earth minerals like zirconium, neodymium, and others, which are abundant in monazite sands. If used correctly, this could help Indian export markets.

However, the production of rare earth minerals has depleted over time due to a variety of factors such as cost reduction due to high production (economies of scale) in China, a lack of demand in the domestic market, and a lack of domestic processing technologies. The majority of products containing rare earth minerals as raw materials are imported. Despite the fact that rare earth minerals have a high value and add the potential for export growth, India has suffered due to inadequate processing technologies.

Read More: Minerals

List of Rare Earth Elements and their Applications

Rare Earth Element Present Applications
Yttrium Used as a Phosphors Liquid Crystal Displays, ceramics, metal alloys
Lanthanum Batteries, catalysts for petroleum refining
Cerium Autocatalysts, Chemical Catalyst, glass polishing, metal alloys
Praseodymium High-power magnets, yellow ceramic pigment
Neodymium High power magnets
Promethium Beta radiation source
Samarium High-temperature magnets,
Europium fluorescent lighting
Gadolinium Magnetic resonance imaging contrast agent, nuclear reactor rods
Terbium Phosphors for lighting, high power high-temperature magnets
Dysprosium High power high-temperature magnets, lasers
Holmium Highest power magnets in existence
Erbium Lasers, glass colorant
Thulium Ceramic magnetic materials which are still under development
Ytterbium Fibre optic technology, solar panels
Lutetium PET scanners

Read More: Copper Ore

Rare Earth Elements Trade and Production

China has one-third of the world’s known rare earth element reserves. It controls 90% of the worldwide REE market. China has gradually gained global dominance in rare earth, and at one point produced 90% of the rare earth required by the world. However, it has now dropped to 60%, with the remainder produced by other countries, including the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the United States).

Production facilities had formed in Australia and the United States, as well as smaller facilities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, since 2010, when China banned shipments of Rare Earth to Japan, the United States, and Europe. However, China is the country with the most processed Rare Earth.

Read More: Precious Metals and Gems

Rare Earth Elements Significance

  • Rare earth materials are used in a wide variety of critical products, allowing many emerging green energy technologies, high-tech applications, and defence systems to function.
  • They’re found in consumer goods like smartphones, computer screens, and telescopic lenses.
  • They use clean energy, which is essential in today’s world.
  • Traditional applications include cerium for glass polishing and lanthanum for automotive catalysts or optical lenses.
  • Rare earth minerals, such as neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium, are critical in the production of magnets used in industries such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, and drones in the twenty-first century.

Read More: Aluminium Ore

Rare Earth Elements UPSC

Metals and non-metals that are regarded as critical for a country’s economic growth are known as essential minerals. Rare earth elements, such as gallium, manganese, aluminium, chromium, cobalt, and nickel, are found in important minerals. These minerals are essential for the rising high-tech industry. They play a critical role in the creation of a product. The economy and national security would suffer significantly without these minerals.

Read about: Chromium Ore

Other Indian Geography Topics

Seasons of India Mountains of India
Mangrove Forests in India Important Mountain Passes in India
Monsoon in India
Indus River System
Climate of India
Rivers of India
Tributaries of Ganga
National Parks in India
Important Dams in India
Wildlife Sanctuaries of India
Tiger Reserves in India
Northern Plains of India
Physiography of India
Important Lakes of India
Wetlands in India
Biodiversity in India
Natural Vegetation in India Earthquakes in India
Types of Soil in India
Ramsar Sites in India
Brahmaputra River System
Hydropower Plants in India
Nuclear Power Plants in India
Major Ports in India
Biosphere Reserves in India
Waterfalls in India

Other Fundamental Geography Topics

Solar System Types of Clouds
Structure of the Atmosphere Himalayan Ranges
Component of Environment
El Nino and La Nina
Coral Reef
Continental Drift Theory
Endogenic and Exogenic Forces
Indian Ocean Region
Pacific Ocean
Indian Ocean Dipole
Air Pollution
Environmental Impact Assessment
Tropical Cyclone
Western Disturbances
Types of Rocks

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Why are they called rare earth elements?

Rare earth elements are typically dispersed due to their geochemical properties. This means they are rarely found in concentrated enough clusters to be mined. Because of their scarcity, these minerals are known as rare earths.

Where do 98% of rare earth elements come from?

The vast majority of rare earth materials are mined out of China.

What is the most common rare earth element?

Cerium, the most abundant rare-earth element, is actually the 25th most abundant element in the Earth's crust, with 68 parts per million (about as common as copper).

Which country has the most rare earth?

China-The global demand for rare earths is expected to reach 125,000 metric tonnes in 2021. It is expected to reach 315,000 tonnes by 2030. Concerningly, the concentration of production of these rare earth minerals has remained. China dominates the market, accounting for 60% of global production and 85% of processing capacity.

Is rare earth harmful?

Worryingly, rare earth ores are frequently contaminated with radioactive thorium and uranium, which can have serious health consequences. In total, 2,000 tonnes of toxic waste are produced for every tonne of rare earth.

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